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Survivors of March 6 shipwreck were all but lost at sea

It started as the kind of delivery Pat Schoenberger, an Annapolis sea captain, had made many times: Pick up a client's motor sailboat, ferry it to Florida and return home in a few weeks' time.

A brilliant morning sky beckoned as Schoenberger and Jim Southward, his friend and first mate, left Severn, Va., for Pensacola, Fla.

Thirty-eight hours later, a Coast Guard helicopter rescued them off Cape Lookout, N.C., amid pounding rain, 55-knot winds, 30-foot waves and the sensation, Southward said, that the ocean was tossing their 15-ton craft, Andante II, "like a cork in a hot tub."

What happened in between was a story of how, even in an era of high-tech sea mapping and navigation, the wisdom of seasoned mariners still can be no match for an angry sea.

Schoenberger, 38, and Southward, 40, seemed dazed and relieved in an interview as they sifted the choices they'd made along the way, including the one no sailor wants to make: to declare Mayday, call for rescue and abandon ship.

"I've seen the awesome power of the ocean firsthand, and I will never again question that power," Southward said.

"The sea doesn't care about you or your plans," Schoenberger added.

Then he thought a moment.

"But somebody up there does."

Why even go?

Schoenberger grew up in Annapolis, where his father, a sailor, "bungee'd" him onto a catamaran as a toddler. He attended the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York and served seven years as a third officer, qualifying to work on vessels of any size anywhere in the world.

Southward was 2 when his dad, an Air Force lifer, put him on the family boat. He learned sailing on Puget Sound, worked vessels out of Lake Erie and moved to Annapolis after seeing a boat show there in 2009.

"I knew pitch and roll before I could walk," he said.

They met at the outdoor ice rink in Quiet Waters Park where both worked offseason. When the owner of Andante II hired Schoenberger, he hired Southward.

For the trip, they'd be at sea about 15 days aboard Andante II — an Island Packet SP Cruiser that would cost more than $480,000 new — and net maybe $7,000.

They'd leave Mobjack Bay in Virginia early Tuesday, March 5, cross the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic, then head south along the Outer Banks, those 200 miles of narrow barrier islands that guard most of the North Carolina coast.

Averaging 8 knots, they'd make Morehead City, N.C., by Wednesday afternoon, then bunk for the night.

Both knew forecasts called for a serious storm to move across Virginia, Maryland and the north-central Atlantic by late Tuesday, but every weather model said waves would top out at 4 to 6 feet — bumpy, but manageable.

"Even my father has said, 'Why go out in those conditions? Why not wait a few days?'" recalled Southward.

"As professionals, our job is to deliver the vessel as quickly and safely as possible," Schoenberger said.

The first night at sea, Tuesday into Wednesday, was surprisingly rough. As they passed Kitty Hawk and Nags Head, N.C., to starboard, a steady drizzle fell.

The 300-pound Southward was resting below deck after midnight when a wave jarred the hull, knocking him from his bunk. Another broke the glass inside a microwave.

Schoenberger decided they'd seek safe harbor until the weather passed.

He'd have to pilot Andante through Oregon, Hatteras or Ocracoke inlet — among the few small, sandy gaps in the long barrier islands— to reach the calm of Pamlico Sound.

At 6 a.m. Wednesday, winds had reached a steady 25 knots and waves a height of 10 feet when Schoenberger radioed the Coast Guard for help navigating through Ocracoke.

"Ocracoke Inlet is shut down for dredging," a voice crackled back.

Decision points

Every sea voyage is a network of choices, each narrowing the options to come.

If Schoenberger could have parked Andante II like an 18-wheeler, he would have. As it was, he had just three options.

He could make for Hatteras Inlet 20 miles away, though reports said waters there were tricky. He could seek Oregon Inlet, where water was calmer, but 10 hours back north. Or he could bolt for Morehead City, 70 miles farther south but through lethal shoals.

Checking his iPhone, he saw that the storm was not expected to fully rile up for 12 hours, time enough to reach Hatteras. Authorities told him a motorized Coast Guard lifeboat would meet them near Hatteras Inlet in three hours and guide them in.

By 10 a.m. they'd pulled within a mile and a half — they could see the beach houses of Hatteras village.

"In our minds, this is almost over," Schoenberger said. "In an hour, we'll be standing on the deck with a cold drink."

At 10:30, the Coast Guard called.

"We recommend against" coming through, a voice said. There was no safe channel through the churning waters.

Schoenberger, a lieutenant commander in the Naval Reserve, has no quarrel with that recommendation. But he believes that if the Coast Guard had known what awaited Andante at sea, they'd have gotten the green light.

"The storm went off-script," he said.

The choices were now two: eight hours north with a following sea to Oregon Inlet, or 12 hours into gale-force winds to Morehead City.

They headed north, the waves 14 feet high and breaking at the crests. An hour later came another call: "Andante, we have to tell you that Oregon Inlet has been closed to navigation."

"That hit me like a punch in the throat," Southward said.

Now there was no option but to turn south and push into the Gulf Stream, with head winds peaking at 40 mph, more than half of hurricane force. They might be enjoying Morehead City right now, they realized, had they not just spent 10 hours motoring in basically the same spot.

Crashing seas

The Labrador Current flows down from near Greenland; the warm Gulf Stream begins in the Caribbean. They collide off the Outer Banks, creating seas so unpredictable the area is called the Graveyard of the Atlantic.

The boat had half a tank of fuel, enough to reach Morehead City. If they could average 6 knots, they'd arrive in 12 hours.

But they were entering seas that have claimed more than 600 ships during the past 500 years.

They also were entering a second storm cell that no one saw coming.

The nor'easter of March 2013 cut off power to a quarter of a million homes, dropped 30 inches of snow in Montana and left 3 feet of water in Hatteras Village, N.C. Two disappeared after a wave shattered a large fishing boat off the Maryland coast.

To those at sea, it beggared description.

Andante II's speed fell from 5 knots to 31/2, then 3 — "like being in a time warp," Southward said.

Southward hit full throttle up the front of each wave, then cut power at the top. "Mistime that and your 30,000-pound boat dropped 30 feet," he said.

Below deck, loose objects created a shooting gallery; the men stayed in the enclosed pilothouse. Gusts blew Andante nearly on her side; the first mate dropped 10 feet through space. Schoenberger gripped the aft door in case they capsized. Southward steered on.

About 3 p.m., a huge gust submerged the mast. When Andante righted, she heeled over 45 degrees, so far the engine couldn't take up fuel.

The crew had no way to steer and protect the boat from the crashing seas. She rocked so violently "it was only a matter time before one of us was injured or a wave punched the pilothouse door and sank us," Schoenberger said

At 5:34 p.m., he called for a helicopter rescue. All they could do now was wait.

Gratitude

Nautical photos line a hall in Schoenberger's Annapolis home, where the music is mellow, a faux fire glows in a corner and the two men tell their tale in sometimes hushed tones.

What happened that day made them brothers for life.

First came the wait. With "moving mountains" of water raging around them 25 miles from Cape Lookout, both knew a rogue wave could finish them. Time "slowed down to one grain of sand at a time dropping through the neck of an hourglass," Southward later wrote.

They prayed. They spoke of things they'd do differently if they lived.

At length, a white-and-orange chopper appeared, made three attempts to get near, then hovered below the tops of the waves.

A rescue swimmer leapt into the water and swam to the boat. Gripping the transom, he spoke in calm tones. Southward, who jumped into the water first, says a wave swept him so high he saw Andante II "three stories below."

The diver gripped his shirt, towed him from the foundering boat and waited until a basket dropped from the sky to haul him to safety.

Half an hour later, when Schoenberger, too, tumbled into the chopper, "I sobbed like a baby," Southward said.

The Red Cross tended them in Elizabeth City, N.C., home to the Coast Guard air station. Andante has not been found.

Inevitably, some will question the men's decisions. The Coast Guard is not among them.

"We simply weren't there in that boat with them," said Chief Petty Officer Nyx Cangemi, a spokesman for the Fifth Coast Guard District in Portsmouth, Va.

The two insist they did their best with what they knew.

They're ecstatic to see friends again, glad for the heroics of rescue workers and grateful that Andante's owner, who wants to remain anonymous, emailed his support.

Will they head back out to sea again? Both say yes — together, if they get the chance. But their future's about more than that.

"Jim and I have been given a great gift," Schoenberger said. "We plan to put it to use."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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